Editor’s note: This story and headline has been updated to reflect the number of globally accredited sanctuaries in the U.S.
When Feld Entertainment quit using elephants in its Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2016, the company announced the animals would retire at its 200-acre training and breeding facility in Polk City.
But an investigation published by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that year showed animals at Feld’s Center for Elephant Conservation were chained on concrete overnight and sometimes up to 23 hours a day, kept in unnaturally small groups when put in pens, moved with bullhooks and electric prods, and lived with chronic injuries from the stress of circus life.
Animal welfare organizations have lobbied for years for Feld Entertainment to surrender its elephants to a reputable sanctuary with appropriate habitat to meet the animals' complex physical and psychological needs.
Now, four years after Feld Entertainment ended the use of performance elephants, the animals are preparing to move to a 2,500-acre habitat at White Oak Conservation near Jacksonville, where they will roam grassland and wetlands, wade through watering holes, and have the freedom to maintain social bonds so vital to the species.
“This will be the first time they will have that chance to do what they choose,” said Michelle Gadd, who leads global conservation efforts for Walter Conservation, an organization founded by Los Angeles Dodgers owners Mark and Kimbra Walter that includes White Oak. “They will have access to the whole range of habitat you find in North Florida.”
White Oak announced the impending transfer Sept. 23, but the organization purchased all 35 of Feld’s elephants and its Center for Elephant Conservation facility in May. Since then Gadd said White Oak staff has been adjusting the elephants' routines to prepare for what life will be like after their move. Staff has already transitioned the elephants' care to protected contact, where handlers work behind a barrier at all times as opposed to direct interaction.
Staff is also keeping the elephants outside the barns at night and in larger social groups.
Sabrina Lowe, Feld’s director of global public relations, declined to comment on the conditions documented in PETA’s 2016 investigation. She said in a statement that Feld has been committed to the care of elephants since the company was founded in 1967.
“Everyone with Feld Entertainment is proud of the care and conservation efforts that have taken place at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation over its past 25 years and we know the dedicated staff at White Oak will continue that legacy for many years to come,” she said.
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Feld ended its circus for good in May 2017, a year after discontinuing its elephant performances and after 146 years of touring. It came amid dwindling ticket sales, increasing pressure from animal welfare advocates and the public’s evolving views about exotic animals in captivity.
Feld is now best known for its live entertainment shows like Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Sesame Street Live and Marvel Universe LIVE!
Gadd said a Feld official approached White Oak about acquiring the animals following its termination of elephant shows. She declined to provide the total cost of the deal, which included the animals, the 200-acre facility and transportation equipment.
The 2,500 acre elephant habitat within White Oak’s 17,000-acre facility is still under construction, but Gadd said the group hopes to begin transferring elephants in early 2021. The habitat will have nine interlinking sections and three barns where the elephants can come and go.
Because of their time in captivity, none of the elephants would survive if returned to the wild, Gadd said. And habitats in their native India and southeast Asia have been decimated. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 endangered Asian elephants remain in the wild and have access to less than 15 percent of their historic range.
The endangered African elephant, a larger cousin to the Asian elephant, has more population with an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 in the wild, but that is down from about 10 million in 1900.
The habitat at White Oak is intended to resemble the closest thing to the wild any of the elephants have experienced. About 25 workers will provide food and veterinary care. But at White Oak, many of the former Feld elephants will for the first time in their lives be able to forage for food, swim and roam, and remain in the complex social structures elephants are known for.
About 30 of the 35 Feld elephants will be going to White Oak. One, Romeo, remains on loan to the Fort Worth zoo, where Feld sent him in 2015. Another elephant, Mysore, is about 75 years old and would not be able to endure the transition, Gadd said. White Oak will care for Mysore at the center in Polk City with about four companions, who could potentially move to White Oak after Mysore’s death.
Most of the 387 captive elephants in United States live in zoos, according to a database kept by PETA. There are only three elephant facilities in the U.S. with accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. This distinction is given only to sanctuaries with extraordinary standards for habitat size, nutrition practices and welfare.
White Oak is not considered a sanctuary because it breeds animals.
Seven circuses across the U.S. — with a combined 30 elephants — still use the animals for performing.
The U.S. has no federal ban on the use of animals in circuses, but there are 102 partial or full restrictions on circus animals in local jurisdictions of 32 states, according to Animal Defenders International. New Jersey, Hawaii and California have statewide bans.
But animal welfare advocacy groups like PETA are looking to the end of Ringling Brothers and the efforts of White Oak as the future.
“The public is calling for an end to this abuse and that’s why Ringling Brothers couldn’t fill its seats,” said Rachel Mathews, director of captive animal law enforcement for PETA. “For the former Feld elephants, this is going to mean an end to being chained on concrete every day and the abuse of circus-style training that relies on force.”